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Vol. LXIII, No. 11
May 27, 2011
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‘Sharing the Sandbox Equally’
Screen Star Davis Urges Gender Balance in Media

On the front page...

At a symposium for the new NIH-Lasker clinical scholars program, Dr. Marston Linehan discusses his research on kidney cancer.
ORWH director Dr. Vivian Pinn (l) welcomes film and television actress Geena Davis to NIH to talk about gender portrayals and health.

Thelma and Louise character aside, screen star Geena Davis never set out to be a crusader. She didn’t dream as a youngster of starting her own non-profit research foundation. She simply sat down one day to watch videos with her toddler daughter. What she saw was eye-opening for her as a mother, woman and entertainer.

“Because of my awareness of female representation, I was absolutely stunned to see—and noticed immediately—that there seemed to be far fewer female characters in what the kids were seeing,” Davis said. “Show after show and movie after movie, it really seemed very striking to me. I thought, in the 21st century, surely by now—for kids at least—we should be showing boys and girls sharing the sandbox equally. Doesn’t seem like there would be much point in showing children such an imbalanced world.”

Continued...

Six years later on Apr. 25, Davis sat down again—this time at NIH—to talk with research experts about media and its possible health effects. In the years in between, the film and TV star—who added twin sons to her family and whose daughter is 9 now—has been far from idle. At first, she’d simply taken note of problems she found in children’s entertainment.

“Male characters largely outnumbered female characters,” she recalled. “Female characters hardly ever had powerful roles, and worse, they were almost always portrayed in skimpy or overly sexualized clothes.”

She discovered it wasn’t just a fluke, occurring in only a few shows. It seemed pervasive. That’s when the crusader within the Academy Award winner took action.

Davis gets a tour of the Clinical Research Center, led by CC director Dr. John Gallin
Davis gets a tour of the Clinical Research Center, led by CC director Dr. John Gallin.

“I realized that if I really wanted to make an impression I would need data, not just my own observations,” Davis said. She gathered several Hollywood friends, who helped her raise money for what would eventually become the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media.

An Oscar winner for The Accidental Tourist and a Golden Globe awardee for Commander In Chief, Davis also employed her Hollywood clout. She and her institute colleagues began meeting with writers, directors, producers and other entertainment industry decision-makers to discuss gender portrayals in media.

By 2008, the Davis Institute had sponsored the largest study ever done on G-rated movies and on television shows made for kids ages 11 and under. Dr. Stacy Smith of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism conducted the study. The research examined 101 of the top G-rated movies produced during the 15-year period from 1990 to 2005.

Results confirmed what Davis had observed. Male characters outnumbered females 3 to 1. In scenes featuring groups, the ratio increased to 5 to 1. And numbers weren’t the only problem.

“Aspirations and occupations of female characters were very limited,” Davis recounted. “[The media in the study contained] narrow, narrow stereotypes for the female characters. Almost the only aspiration for female characters was to find romance. No male characters had that as their life’s goal. The number one occupation for females in G-rated films was royalty. There was a great deal of hypersexualization. The female characters in G-rated films wear the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as the female characters in R-rated movies…What message are we sending to our youngest kids when the female characters are so one-dimensional and sidelined, hypersexualized or simply not there at all? I think it’s clear the message is that girls and women are less important than boys and men to our society.”

A group of NIH’ers gathers with Davis to discuss how girls and women are perceived based on their roles in children’s films, television shows and video games. During the hour-long session, participants talked about strategies for balancing gender portrayals and how everyone’s overall health might be improved as a result.
A group of NIH’ers gathers with Davis to discuss how girls and women are perceived based on their roles in children’s films, television shows and video games. During the hour-long session, participants talked about strategies for balancing gender portrayals and how everyone’s overall health might be improved as a result.

After meeting NIH associate director for research on women’s health Dr. Vivian Pinn at a recent gathering of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, Davis decided to bring her research findings to NIH. Were there further empirical data connecting entertainment to self-esteem and other aspects of mental and physical health? How could her institute bolster its case and thereby amplify its call for change in the media industry?

In the Clinical Research Center’s medical board room, Davis and her institute’s executive director Madeline Di Nonno brainstormed for about an hour with Pinn and other NIH science policy strategists including NIH deputy director for intramural research Dr. Michael Gottesman, NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci, CC director Dr. John Gallin, NIH associate director for behavioral and social sciences research Dr. Robert Kaplan and Dr. James Anderson, director of NIH’s Division of Program Coordination, Planning and Strategic Initiatives.

Davis talks about putting her name and Hollywood influence behind a research institute on gender in the media.

Davis talks about putting her name and Hollywood influence behind a research institute on gender in the media.

Photos: Ernie Branson

In typical NIH fashion, participants suggested new research avenues and other novel approaches the Davis Institute might pursue: Does it make any difference whether a vehicle’s top decision-makers are women? How about devising training mechanisms for content creators? Had Davis considered the impact of behind-the-scenes interviews, commentary and other content beyond the vehicle itself?

In addition, several NIH-funded studies were offered as potential sources for future Davis Institute research projects. Davis’s visit ended with a tour of the CRC, led by Gallin.

“Part of how we judge our value to society is by seeing ourselves reflected in the culture,” Davis concluded. “What’s particularly important to me is to start with what the littlest kids see.

So many problems result from relentless negative stereotypes of girls,” she said, citing for example, body-image issues that can lead to eating disorders. “If we can stop it in the beginning, we can also impact boys, who will get a different message if they see girls actually taking up half the space.” NIHRecord Icon


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